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Voters in Michigan's 7th Congressional District weigh in on issues ahead of midterms


Midterm elections are often hard for a president's party. And this year, Democrats have even more reasons than usual to worry. Polling shows the president's approval rating in the low 40s. And Democrats have no seats to spare in the Senate or the House. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid has been talking with voters. Hey there.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi there. Good morning.

INSKEEP: What did you learn?

KHALID: Well, Steve, the simplest explanation is that voters seem frustrated. They're frustrated with a pandemic that doesn't seem to go away, with rising prices that they haven't seen in decades or, frankly, just with the general state of the country. There's a sort of bipartisan angst. Lanae Erickson is with the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. And she told me that Joe Biden had promised voters a return to normalcy. But that hasn't entirely happened.

LANAE ERICKSON: Right now, voters have been in a really ornery mood. And, you know, that's a combination of inflation, supply chains, worker shortages. People are still feeling like things are a little off.

INSKEEP: Do people who are getting ready to vote this fall blame the president for that and even act like the president is on the ballot?

KHALID: Well, I will say, Steve, you know, whether any Democrat likes it or not, the president is really symbolically on the ballot this November. That is typically the case in a midterm election. And I wanted to understand how this dynamic is playing out in one of the most competitive congressional districts in the country. So I flew to Detroit and then drove about an hour west to Livingston County. And because inflation is the top concern in just about every poll, my first stop was Walmart.


KHALID: I met Walt Hickok (ph) in the parking lot. He's 75 and still works part-time. And like a lot of people lately, he's annoyed by the uptick in prices.

WALT HICKOK: It seems every time I go down the road that something has gone up five, 10, 15 cents. Some things I've seen go up as much as 25 cents in one jump. I don't know where it came from. I don't really attribute it to the war because it started before the war.

KHALID: Hickok is a self-described conservative who says, ultimately, he thinks the president is part of the root cause.

HICKOK: I think all the giving of money to everybody has...

KHALID: The stimulus checks, you're talking about. Yeah.

HICKOK: Yeah. It has not helped the country, in my opinion, because now you find signs everywhere that says, we need people to work.

KHALID: This, by the way, is not an isolated opinion. A letter from the San Francisco Fed last month argued that the U.S. is experiencing higher inflation in part because of pandemic aid Congress passed under both President Biden and President Trump. The catch, economists say, is that without those big spending measures, the economy could have tipped into a recession. Another person I met was Michael Ovorus (ph). And he was at a local grocery chain called Meijer in the neighboring city of Brighton. Ovorus is a retired engineer who says he first started noticing prices going up last summer.

MICHAEL OVORUS: What can you expect, you know, with the COVID epidemic, where the economy stopped to, like, zero. It's one big mess, you know? And it's going to take time to get through.

KHALID: Ovorus has this fatalist attitude. He thinks inflation could last another year or so. But Democrats like him generally do not fault the president. They blame the pandemic, the war in Ukraine or even greedy corporations. Realistically, there is little any president can do to curb inflation. But analysts say Biden needs to look like he's trying because the problem is so pervasive. Just about every person I talked to had an earful to share.

KRISTA WILCOX: We are buying significantly less - like, we're shopping like this now, a small cart.

KHALID: That's Krista Wilcox (ph). She was putting groceries into the trunk with her husband, Trevor (ph).

K WILCOX: And we're a dual-income family.

KHALID: And do you feel like you understand why the prices are going up? Is there - or any sense...



KHALID: Do you believe anyone or do you blame anything for it?


TREVOR: You know, the Biden administration (laughter).


KHALID: You blame COVID...

K WILCOX: Yeah, I'm going to say so.

KHALID: ...And you blame Biden?

TREVOR: The administration. Yeah. There's a lot of things they could do.

KHALID: I asked Trevor what exactly does he think Biden could do? And he turns to gas prices.

TREVOR: We've got plenty reserves here. There's no reason that we have to rely on other countries to get our oil, you know? We have plenty of it here.

KHALID: This is something the GOP is trying to capitalize on. Republican Tom Barrett is hoping to unseat the Democratic congresswoman in this district, Elissa Slotkin. And the other morning, he held a press conference outside of a gas station.


TOM BARRETT: The administration first told us that inflation was transitory. Then they tried to tell us it was a good thing. Then they tried to tell us it would be passing. And then last, they tried to blame it on Vladimir Putin.

KHALID: Barrett is trying to tether Slotkin to the president. In a statement, Slotkin told me she has been pushing the White House to do more to fight inflation, to suspend the federal gas tax or open up the strategic oil reserves even further. Local Democrats say the messaging out of Washington is a problem. So they're trying to create their own story. On one of the days I was out in Michigan, I caught up with Brenda Lindsay. She was gathering signatures for a couple of statewide petitions.


KHALID: Lindsay leads a local Indivisible group in the country. Y'all might remember, Indivisible is this grassroots, progressive group that sprung up after Donald Trump's election.

BRENDA LINDSAY: Joe Biden is probably what we needed. It's not that he himself is terrible. It's the Democrats aren't as effective as they need to be with messaging. So I don't know. Should messaging coming from the president? I don't know. We're suffering incredibly from messaging and holding others accountable right now.

KHALID: Lindsay says people in her circle will no doubt still vote in November. They're activists. But the energy is nowhere near where it was during the last midterm election. Young people, for example, were key to Democratic wins in 2018 and 2020. And a key question is whether they will be there this year, especially first-time voters. Brady McAdams (ph) is a 19-year-old nursing student at Michigan State. She says she feels like a lot of people got tricked into voting for Biden.

BRADY MCADAMS: He hasn't fulfilled his promises. I think he's not doing enough for the people that he said he would.

KHALID: Her major complaint is student loan forgiveness. Young voters also mention immigration.

MCADAMS: I feel like we were promised so many things about so many new changes, and we were going to, like, get back on track. I don't feel like we're getting on track. I feel like we're just not doing anything.

INSKEEP: Some of the voters talking with our colleague, Asma Khalid, who's still with us. And, Asma, as I listen to those voters, I think about this interview we had with Jim Clyburn, the president's friend and supporter in Congress, a few months ago, who said other people need to get out there and tout the president's accomplishments. He may be - he's not going to be the best speaker. But other people can do that and that there are accomplishments to push. Do you think that there are some Democrats who feel that the president is being unfairly targeted or unfairly overlooked?

KHALID: You're right. You know, Steve, there are certainly Democrats who point to things like the passage of the infrastructure bill, nominating the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, low unemployment levels and say that the president has done a lot and that he's getting unfairly blamed for things out of control - his control, you know, like a pandemic and a war. But I will say, Lanae Erickson, with that Democratic think tank Third Way, told me that she worries 2022 could be a rough hill to climb still for Democrats.

ERICKSON: You know, if the president's approval rating is 42%, it's going to be difficult for anyone to outperform him by nine or 10 points. That's just very difficult in modern politics.

KHALID: And frankly, Steve, the big test will be if Democrats in competitive races ultimately try to drop the president altogether and try to create their own distinct brand, which, I will say, we have not really seen publicly yet.

INSKEEP: NPR's Asma Khalid, always a pleasure.

KHALID: Happy to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL LAURANCE'S "THE GOOD THINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.